Friday 14 June 2024

Movie REVIEW: Ultraman: Rising

 Ultraman: Rising

Ultraman's worldwide expansion over the last few years has been a thing of marvel, with the likes of mass market Blu-ray releases, a Marvel comic book series, an anime adaptation of an ongoing manga sequel/spin-off, the cinematic release of Shin Ultraman and YouTube simulcasts of the current airing shows all working in tandem to turn the franchise into a household name across the globe. Now the next step in that bid for world domination comes in the form of Ultraman: Rising - a feature length animated film co-produced by Netflix Animation and Tsuburaya Productions with animation by Industrial Light & Magic. The film is the directorial debut of Shannon Tindle, so co-directed alongside John Aoshima. Tindle also co-wrote the story alongside Marc Haimes, both of whom also were behind the original story for Laika's 2016 film Kubo and the Two Strings. The film stars Christopher Sean (Star Wars Resistance) in the lead role as Ken Sato/Ultraman, with the Japanese voice being provided by Yuki Yamada (Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger's Joe Gibken/Gokai Blue).

Meeting UltramanKen Sato

As a child Ken Sato idolised Ultraman, initially unaware that his father was the silver giant. But as time passed and Ken and his mother moved to America, Professor Sato's responsibilities caused a rift between him and his son. 20 years later Ken returns Japan - not only now an egotistical baseball player but also moonlighting as the new Ultraman. However he finds more than he bargained for when he finds himself caring for a newborn kaiju.

Together with his robot companion Mina, Ken must raise the creature - struggling to balance his responsibilities as a parent and to his baseball team. Ken must confront his own ego, his estranged father, and the conniving Kaiju Defence Force to rise up and discover what it truly means to be Ultraman.

Ultraman vs NerongaUltraman & Emi

Ultraman: Rising began life as a concept Tindle developed over two decades ago that was merely inspired by the Ultraman story. It wasn't until years later that he would be approached by Netflix and Tsuburaya themselves with the opportunity to fully develop it using the Ultraman IP. As such it isn't a surprise that there are some areas in the film where you could see how it would work with a similar character in the lead role. In some aspects it's quite a different (and somewhat 'Western' take) on the hero - with elements like his overly talkative nature (at least to the point where the general public can understand and converse with him) and an AI companion immediately drawing obvious comparisons to the likes of Iron Man and the MCU. However if there's one thing that's allowed the Ultraman franchise to survive for nearly 60 years it's the ability to be versatile, and as long as the fundamentals that make up Ultraman remain then there's no need to sweat the smaller details. Within the first three minutes of the film Ken's father tells him that "Ultraman's most important task is about finding balance" - this alone should be enough to confirm that understanding of what makes Ultraman special is there. As with any entry in the franchise the kaiju battling action may be there, but at the heart of Ultraman is the more human story about the bonds we share - with the themes of Ultraman: Rising being about as human as it gets.

As a film aimed at families, fans and newcomers alike it's also a perfect jumping on point for the franchise. Again it doesn't sweat small details like where these Ultraman powers come from (or even what they are really), but the opening scenes are careful to cover all the basics in quick succession like his attacks or the importance of colour timer. It's a great intro that not only welcomes new viewers in with open arms, but also highlights just how much of an icon Ultraman is - the scenes of children running around in Ultraman clothing making the Specium Beam pose and shouting "Shuwatch!" mirroring the real-life memories of fans or the parents of fans. That section of the audience is also well catered for too, as the film is loaded with references, Easter eggs and cameos from the Ultra Series' rich history. As always there's reverence to the past, but also a clear look to the future. Everyone's Ultraman journey has to start somewhere.

Ken, Emi & MinaKen rebonds with his dad

Albeit sizing it up to titanic proportions, Ultraman: Rising is a story about family. Not only does Ken have to juggle with his newfound responsibility of taking care of the more adorable giant monster ever, but also repairing his strained relationship with his father. Though the film doesn't delve too deeply into the 20 years passed over following those opening scenes the effect his father's absence had on Ken is all too apparent - particularly with his mother no longer around either. When we first meet adult Ken he's arrogant, self-centred and quick to shirk his heroic duties wherever possible - a far cry from your typical Ultraman protagonist. However he's still a true hero where it counts - taking the baby kaiju in without a moment's hesitation. Parenthood changes him in a way that allows him to eventually confront his father, and it's through Emi (the name given to the baby) that they are both able to slowly repair their relationship. Though it may sound like the key themes of the film may resonate with parents more, in reality it's far more broad than that - and anyone should be able to relate to these ideas on some level. It isn't necessarily a particularly original story (even within the franchise there are a number of Ultramen with daddy issues), but in addition to stirring up some genuine emotion there's still room for plenty of surprises along the way best left unspoiled.

Turning a staple of the franchise on its head is the use of the Kaiju Defence Force, presented as a more ruthless version of the typical Ultraman defence team that eliminate kaiju and are at odds with the titular hero. But while their actions may create the conflict that arises in the film, their portrayal - particularly its chief officer Dr. Onda, is a lot more nuanced than that. Whereas the story sees the Sato family coming together once more, Onda's is beyond repair - his family killed in a kaiju attack that he sees as Ultraman's failing. Though villainous in his action, he shows loyalty to his team as well as a love and respect for their families. Again it speaks to the strength of the cast that each one come with their own interesting backstories and characterisation that can even be brought out with limited screen time. Ami is another example of this - a journalist initially interested in Ken purely for an interview, but soon unknowingly becoming his guide through parenthood without it ever delving into a romance subplot. Also helping him navigate this strange new world is Mina, who not only shares some great banter with Ken but also surprisingly manages to become an emotional pillar of the film.

Dr Onda of the KDFKen & Emi bond

However the star of the film is without a doubt Emi, whose adorable antics will surely melt even the coldest of hearts. Not only a great design that's able to blend the look of a baby kaiju with human emotions and mannerisms, Emi is a bundle of fun that will quickly win kids over whilst older fans (particularly the parents!) humorously relate to the struggles of raising a newborn. Ultraman caring for kaiju (certain ones anyway) is nothing new to the franchise but it's never been on a level like this before, particularly in a way that emphasises some of the more human moments over giant set pieces. It opens the film up to some of its more cartoonish/juvenile moments, but it's all in perfectly good fun that goes hand in hand with the subject matter. The beating heart of Ultraman: Rising for the story, characters and audience alike.

Heart and character aren't the only things Ultraman: Rising has going for it either, sporting some truly gorgeous animation that again captures the spirt of the franchise even in a completely different medium. Tindle not only shows a clear understanding of the kind of set pieces that continue to make Ultraman a visual delight, but also the sense of scale it achieves. While the latter may be achieved with the usual framing of Ultraman and his kaiju opponents against the Tokyo cityscape, here it's also done with Emi as the focal point rather than Ultraman as she attempts to navigate around Ken's human-sized home. It's a bold claim to say moments of downtime like Ken bonding with Emi over baseball prove just enchanting as a Gigantron's fiery attack on Tokyo, but Ultraman: Rising is able to juggle both in perfect harmony. The film even makes great use of montage sequence, making almost every frame of the film feel wallpaper-worthy. The character design is excellent too, from both the various kaiju to the humans themselves. Similarly to Shin Ultraman the film offers a rather unique take on the titular hero proportionally, as well as clever use of pupils within his eyes to create a more dynamic and expressive interpretation that fits the animation without straying too far away from the base design.

Gigantron attacksUltra slash!

Great animation and character design are just two faucets of its visual charm, one which would be complete without also commending its expert use of colour. From the very first images released of the film it was clear colour would play a big part in its visual style, from the bold reds being used in action shots to the vivid colours of neon lit Tokyo against Ultraman's shiny silver body. This carries through to the film itself, with the abundance of night visuals particularly effective thanks to the torch-like glow given to Ultraman's eyes and colour timer. It's use of dynamic backgrounds in both colour and black and white add a frenetic energy that compliments the stylisation beautifully, not only securing Ultraman: Rising's place as one of the most unique offerings in the franchise but also easily among the best animated offerings of the last few years.

Ultra dadMecha Gigantron

Ultraman: Rising is a beautifully animated film about parenthood, loss, love, sacrifice, responsibility and so much more - all told through the lens of Ultraman. Whether its your first foray into the franchise or you've been here for decades, it's a story with universal appeal that remains faithful to the core ideals of Ultraman whilst putting at the same time putting its own unique spin on things. With plenty of scope for more storytelling in this world as well as the perfect hook for a sequel, this doesn't feel like the last we'll be seeing of this fantastic cast either. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and you certainly won't forget about this film any time soon.

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